James Dougherty (RC ’74, GSNB ’75, VMD), a supporter of the Honors College and a member of the Rutgers University Board of Governors, sat with Honors College student Peristera Vikatos (’23, SAS/HC) in the Dougherty Lounge at the Honors College for a conversation a few days ahead of his May 2nd address at the Honors College Scholars Convocation. Dr. Dougherty shared his life story, his experiences, and the advice that he drew from those experiences for students today.
Peristera: I’m curious about your Rutgers story. Can you tell me how you became a Rutgers student, what your undergraduate and graduate experiences were like, and what some of the similarities and differences are between then and what you see on campus today?
Dr. Dougherty: We didn’t have much guidance counseling when I was in high school, but I had a few goals. I knew I wanted to live away from home but not so far that I couldn’t also take laundry home! In my junior year of high school, I came here as part of an engineering trip. We ate at Brower Commons and sat outside on the steps. There were students protesting at the time, and I just liked the whole vibe of what was going on. I also had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, so I thought if I go to a small school, I’m going to pigeonhole myself. I thought I should go to a place where I could take a lot of courses and figure out what I wanted to do.
Communications make things different. We didn’t have cell phones so if someone wanted to visit, they would have to call the phone in the hall of the dorm, then hope that someone would answer it and take a message. Or, I’d show up at the dining hall hoping that some of my friends would show up too. We would have no way of organizing that, so you’d cross your fingers or only eat at a certain table. Tuesdays, you always knew that so-and-so would be there at 6:00pm, so it was that kind of rough organizing that seems so different.
Peristera: One of my professors said that it used to be so noisy before class, but now everyone’s on their phones and it’s usually silent…it’s harder to strike up a conversation.
Dr. Dougherty: People on the buses then…it would just be one big chatter box. And there would always be noise in the class before it started. I remember when my German instructor would come in, everyone would be talking, and she would stomp repeatedly until everybody quieted down.
During my first two years, Rutgers College was all-male, though Douglass was nearby. Also, we had a war going on and protests were frequent. I lived in Clothier and the engineering building nearby at the time had a loud siren. They would blast it in some pattern when there was a bomb scare, which was almost every day. So, we would stick our heads out the window first and listen for the sirens to know whether or not to go out and get on the buses. So that’s different from now.
Peristera: It’s amazing that you witnessed all that. As a tour guide for Douglass, we talk about, “This is when Rutgers integrated and became co-ed.” The fact that you saw that is just really amazing. How do you think your experience at Rutgers set you on your career path and contributed to all the success that you saw as a veterinarian and as a business owner?
Dr. Dougherty: I think the diversity of the classes and the ability to take anything…I thought I was pre-med but I didn’t like it. A friend of mine from Cook College suggested I take some of the animal science courses and that I could be a veterinarian. So I did…I took courses in my junior year and stayed for two years to do graduate work to get the classes I needed for vet school. But this was my original reason for coming here…it was the diversity of class work and courses.
At the time, if Rutgers College offered a course, you couldn’t take that same course at Douglass College or Livingston College if you were a Rutgers College student. Cornell Vet School required public speaking as a course, which Rutgers College didn’t offer but Douglass did, so I had to take speech class there. Not only did I have to give speeches, but I was the only male in the room!
I was fortunate then because New Jersey used to have contracts with Penn, Cornell, Ohio State, and Kansas vet schools where I would only pay in-state tuition. So I applied to Cornell and Penn, and I got into Penn. It was quite a tuition shock because Rutgers at the time was $500 or $600, and Penn was $5,000, so that was a big change.
But going there was like going back home. I grew up just outside of the campus in what’s called Gray’s Ferry in South Philadelphia and, people shudder when I say this, but when I was about 6 or so, I used to pack a cheese sandwich on white bread with mayo and walk across a bridge to Penn’s campus. There’s an archaeology museum there and I loved to look at the mummies and walk around.
After finishing vet school, I came back to East Brunswick for a year and worked in a practice, but I was already bored of that, so I applied for an internship at Penn and then stayed for three years for the residency. I then joined a practice in Pennsylvania on the Main Line with two other friends for two years. We were thinking that maybe we should start our own practice, but we didn’t know how. Six months later we found a building and retrofitted it into what became our practice. There were three of us then and now, depending on the day of the week, there are about 35 vets who are different specialists. It was just basically learning by the seat of our pants. I never took business courses or things like that.
Peristera: So, to kind of shift gears a little bit, one thing that really struck me is that you’ve been an advocate for the LGBTQ community on campus and you’ve probably noticed that there’s been an increased emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion at Rutgers, especially since President Holloway took office. And, you’ve been a contributor to the Scarlet Promise Grants, which have helped so many students across Rutgers attend school and seek higher education. Could you speak a little bit about why diversity and inclusion are important to you and how you’ve tried to provide support to underrepresented communities here and beyond?
Dr. Dougherty: It’s always been important but never recognized. People never thought about it or they talked under their breath until finally it started changing with people really trying to make it equitable in offices and schools. For example, I was on the Board of Trustees nominating committee and was chair of it for two out of three years here. The goal of that committee is to have the composition of the board, which is 41 people now, be approximately the same as the diversity of New Jersey. It’s been a good effort—if you look at a Board of Trustees meeting, you’ll see for the most part the results of that work. So that’s been important to me.
As an older white male, people tend to speak their truth when they think that they’re only in a room full of other white males. So, I sat through hearing a lot earlier in life and went through the dilemma in my head, do you speak up? Do you risk losing the position? So that’s rough…but sometimes you can use the power of that. People can cause a lot of destruction with their words…they think it’s safe and that’s where it’s bothered me. It’s been one of the trigger points for me when somebody feels comfortable saying something prejudice and then they claim to want diversity, but the minute they’re in a room where no one else different from them can hear them they think they can get away with that kind of stuff. It’s a problem everywhere and you can’t escape it, but you can feel more comfortable here, at Rutgers, and the evolution of all these clubs, for everyone, not just the LGBTQ people, has helped.
It’s just a constant inner fight in my head of getting upset and trying to figure out how to fix it. I know I can’t fix it, but I can hopefully help…especially kids who grew up like me. It was just me, my mother, and my grandmother. I was always grateful for the financial aid and scholarships that I got because it covered college 100%.
When I was vice chair of the Board of Trustees, we started investigating the student financial needs and created a task force on philanthropy and student aid. A couple of trustees took it upon themselves to investigate existing aid and found the Rutgers Assistance Grants, which everyone called “RagTag” for “Rutgers Assistance Grant” and “Tuition Aid Grant” from Trenton. I hated that name, so I asked the president of the Foundation for a new name…in record time, and we now have the Scarlet Promise Grants. The trustees commit to 100% participation in donating every year. It just goes to show what wanting to have change can do and how you can rally people to get behind something. I’m really proud of that. If I had to make a list of prideful moments, it would be helping to establish those Scarlet Promise Grants.
Peristera: As someone who is part of the LGBTQ community and to have had so much success and be so open about your identity, I think is really inspiring and to hear your story will touch many students who identify similarly and otherwise. I’m also inspired by your commitment to students through the scholarships and through advocating for the community and I definitely want to do the same as I enter my own career. I want to commit to that as well.
Dr. Dougherty: I’m glad to hear that. You know, from what I’ve gleaned, when you’re asking for money, people always think you’re asking for $1 million, but I would like to clarify that 100% participation doesn’t mean a 100% million dollar participation, it means whatever you can give. A lot of organizations are asking for money, and it’s hard sometimes depending on how much you want to give to decide how you’re going to give it. It was important to me to have the funds go to the whole general population of students in need instead of directing the funds to specific areas. With grants like this, it’s equal…that’s equity.
Peristera: You’ve been a supporter of the Honors College since its inception in 2015, creating scholarship opportunities here and, of course, contributing to the physical facility…I’ve spent many nights here in this very lounge. I’m just curious, what drew you to getting involved with the Honors College specifically?
Dr. Dougherty: New Jersey was losing students and building the Honors College was a way to help stop some of the bleeding. It was also a way to improve our academic reputation. The fact that there would be a place for people to gather and to learn and to be amongst all the different schools—which was another attractive thing—offered an opportunity for advancement and to excel.
My high school was not good…among the worst in New Jersey. I didn’t know what AP meant. Sometimes I would be pulled out of a class in high school to tutor classmates and I would miss out on learning. I always wanted to find a way for all the students at Rutgers, no matter what their economic background was, to be able to excel and to find a home where they could learn and then to go on to other honors sections. It’s just a great concept to me…it was the most fabulous thing I’d heard of. When I saw the blueprints of the building, I saw the high ceilings of this space and said, that’s the room I want…and looking up Voorhees Mall when the trees aren’t in bloom...I was happy to help.
I established the study abroad scholarship because I didn’t have a passport until I was about 30, and I thought that’s crazy because there are all these opportunities for students. I wanted to try and help students who couldn’t afford to go abroad.
Peristera: What advice would you have for honors students like me about how to make the most of our education and prepare for our next phase of life?
Dr. Dougherty: I think you have to get used to rejection and not get upset about it. You just have to keep moving forward to find your niche, but you may not find it right away. I think people tend to rush into things. You’ve done your education and now it’s time to have your job. But, it’s important to be flexible enough to change your goals as long as you’re happy. Don’t wait until the end of the day to have fun…it’s important to find jobs that are interesting to you so that the whole day is good. And if it’s not good, find something else. And, you’re never too old to do something else.
Peristera: It was nice to meet you and get to know you. I’m very inspired by you and it was just a pleasure to hear your story. I’m excited for all of my classmates to hear it too.
Dr. Dougherty: Oh, that’s great. Thank you so much!
This article features excerpts from an interview conducted on April 27, 2023. You can hear Dr. Dougherty’s Honors College Scholars Convocation Address at the 32:43 minute mark of our ceremony recording.